The issue of internet blackout is a fear that most technology firms in Africa harbour.
This fear is because despotic presidents might wake up one day and decide to shut down internet in the country. When this happens, businesses suffer, as was evident in Chad, Gabon, Uganda and a host of other nations where governments have close-down internet to deprive citizens of a platform to protest.
Paul Biya, president of Cameroon, recently denied people from the English-speaking part of Cameroon access to the internet.
The Anglophone people of Southern Cameroon claim they have been sidelined for more than 50 years. According to them, the majority French speaking side have marginalized them economically, and have imposed the French legal and educational systems on them.
For some, Biya’s action only lends credence to this claim.
In December of 2016, lawyers from the English speaking side protested against the use of French in the courts.
It is not clear if the government shutdown of internet in Southern Cameroon is for security reasons, as the government has not said anything to that effect. Government officials have always been quick to use security as an excuse to clampdown on the freedom of citizens.
Silence from government officials gave room to the assumption that shutting down the internet in Southern Cameroon is driven more by politics than security.
There are reasons to suggest that governments may be insincere when they use security as a pretext to block citizens from using the internet. According to this research by Portland Communications Africans use social media (Twitter) for social and political activism more than their peers in other continents.
One hidden motive behind blocking citizens from using the internet may be to prevent them from mobilizing like in the Arab Spring of 2011.
The remark of the speaker of the Cameroonian parliament, to how people reacted to the Camrail train derailment in Eseka on social media, is instructive of the kind of suspicions African leaders have over how citizens’ use of the internet. The speaker called social media “a new form of terrorism” bent on creating a “social pandemic”.
Ironically, President Paul Biya had previously praised Cameroonian youths in the tech and digital communications sector. Most of these youths live and work in Buea, a city in the Southern part of the country, which has been called Cameroon’s “Silicon Mountain,” and is home to dozens of successful technology start-ups.
According to research by TheWire, there were reductions in economic activities due to internet shutdowns in 2016 which cost India $968 million, Saudi Arabia, $465 million and Morocco $320 million. Internet shutdown in Ethiopia between 2015 and 2016 led to a $9 million loss in the economy.
It is puzzling that in Africa where most economies are fledgling, governments are restricting access to the internet.
Access to the internet has been proven to help create employment opportunities, better the state of education, and the social life of the people. It is, therefore, troubling that Cameroon, a country with an estimated unemployment rate of 30 percent, has blocked a section of its citizens from accessing internet.